Come on in, the Water's Fine

Article excerpt

Byline: Bryan Curtis

Never mind the beheadings, the kidnappings, the mass graves. Mexico wants its tourists back.

One warm, sunny spring day, I check into Los Flamingos, a pink stucco hotel that sprawls across a cliffside in Acapulco. Los Flamingos was once the cerveza-soaked playground of John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Johnny Weissmuller (a.k.a. Tarzan), who kept a roundhouse on the premises. I try to retrace their gringo wanderings. I sip coffee on the hotel's veranda. I paddle around the pool. I venture out to Senor Johnny's roundhouse. I see smiling, white-uniformed staff members everywhere. But I begin to worry when, two days later, I haven't seen another customer.

"Sunny Acapulco" these days is more like empty Acapulco, a deserted paradise--except for the Army troops. While I sit in the yacht club one morning with a local attorney, we see a federale casually walk through the manicured grounds with a machine gun. Camouflaged troops in black masks whiz up and down La Costera, the city's beachfront drive. What happened? First, the narcos started a death match over Acapulco. Then, the city became a scene in the bloody grindhouse movie playing in American media. "Fifteen Headless Bodies Found in Acapulco," CNN blared earlier this year. "Bag of Severed Heads Left Near Mexican School," another headline announced this month. When I meet an Acapulco official, she says darkly, "We're still alive, no?"

A few days later, I meet Gloria Guevara, Mexico's tourism secretary, in her office in Mexico City. The country's intelligentsia tends to talk about the drug war in terms of overt problems: its duration (four and a half years), body count (35,000 dead), and collateral damage (civil-rights abuses, uneven prosecutions, you name it). Guevara talks about it as a PR problem. Like BP and Goldman Sachs, the Mexican brand has become toxic. "Many, many years ago, we Mexicans didn't take the time to decide the image or the branding of Mexico," Guevara says. "It was decided by someone else." Guevara is trying to rebrand Mexico.

Guevara has eyelashes like the teeth of a Venus flytrap and wears sweeping, brightly colored dresses. She has commanded her staff to call her on her BlackBerry whenever Mexico gets "bad news." In April, 183 bodies were found 85 miles south of the American border in the state of Tamaulipas. The massacre posed little danger to tourists (Tamaulipas will never be mistaken for Cancon), but the words "mass grave" rolling along the CNN crawl is the kind of thing a turista doesn't forget. Guevara's phone buzzed.

More bad news: before Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign, his state government urged citizens to "avoid traveling to Mexico"--the whole country, from Ciudad Juarez to Cozumel. In April, the State Department issued a jittery travel warning that cataloged death and murder in 14 of the 31 Mexican states. It was like "40 percent of our country was up in flames," grumbles Rodolfo Lopez Negrete, chief operating officer of the Mexico Tourism Board.

In the face of death screams from the north, Guevara is gamely changing the subject: what does a severed head in Juarez have to do with the mole negro in Oaxaca? Her rebranding campaign has a defiant air. Even though 2010 was the drug war's bloodiest year, with more than 15,000 dead, Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, declared 2011 the "year of tourism." Guevara bought ads in America with the winking tagline "Mexico, the Place You Thought You Knew." Visions of scuba divers and old churches--rather than bodies hanging from overpasses--adorned posters in the New York subway.

Mexico's PR war is a campaign of warm smiles--tortillas, not bombs. "I think there's an untold side of the story," Guevara says. Her attempt to reprogram the turista says a lot about what America thinks of its neighbor. It also says a lot about what Mexico thinks of itself.

Gloria Guevara, who was born in 1967, has always noted how Mexico was seen through gringo eyes. …